The Night Notre Dame Burned

Rating 8.7
Streamer BBC iPlayer
Seasons 1
Episodes 1 x 90 mins

We all watched in stunned silence as the flames scorched the eyebrows of Notre Dame’s gargoyles, looking helplessly out over their city and appearing to vomit molten lead as the building melted, and our emotions with it.

The dramatic scene was so like the pages of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that you half expected Quasimodo to appear next to the steeple. And now, 18 months on, Storyville is reliving it in a 90-minute special, following the firefighters on the ground and the officials in the control room pulling the strings – or fire hoses.

On April 15th 2019, the Paris cathedral set alight after a suspected electrical spark. The building went up in flames like a November 5th bonfire, probably owing to the 1,400 trees worth of medieval wood supporting the roof, which has obviously had more than a few years to dry out into perfect kindling. Despite now knowing the outcome, re-watching the blaze you can’t help but believe that it’s game over. The fire blazing through the roof was big enough to heat the whole of the fourth arrondissement, the iconic central spine had toppled like us after too many bottles of Beaujolais, and the beams supporting the bells were on their way out too. We watch as President Macron looks pale and clammy, deciding whether to let her burn, or send the pompiers in, knowing they’re unlikely to come back out. Thankfully, he chose to save Our Lady (and his political career with it). This film has the tension and fear of a blockbuster thriller. So, when you come to the end the sense of relief is the same as the first time – Notre Dame still stands. A little shorter, a little darker, but still a beacon at the heart of the city of light.  

The BBC film has had overwhelmingly positive press. The Telegraphs’ Anita Singh gave it a full five stars, saying the story is “brought vividly to life in words, photographs and illustrations,” making for a “superb documentary.” Lucy Mangan in The Guardian calls it “an admirably structured film, spreading and carrying the weight of abundant material,” which “makes you long for several spin-offs.” In The Times Ben Dowell describes the film as “a story offering moving insight into the way centuries of devotion get under people’s skins,” as “you didn’t have to be a Christian or French to love this building.”

First aired in November 2020.

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